Friday, 20 June 2014

A Camellia Quest

A couple of weeks ago I was shopping for plants with a niece; a late birthday present quest augmented with elixir of coffee before and after for much-needed battle strength (shopping is not my forte); but gosh what fun it turned out to be. (Plants are much more interesting than, say, clothes or shoes, of course.)
One shrub she wanted was a camellia and as these have just started to bloom, it seemed a great time to choose one she really liked rather than rely on labels; this is advice I give my landscape design clients – about camellias. But she was flummoxed by the range of camellia flowers – which I thought had barely begun to bloom; do my clients feel thus, too? Should I be more forthright, and tell them always exactly what to get? (I usually advice certain plants, but sometimes ask them to choose their own camellias. If I recommend camellias, too, this would eliminate all the double camellias seem too fussy – to my eye. Taste is a very individual thing, and I want the client to love their garden.) When she was paralyzed by choice, I had a suggestion. When she was about 10, she gave me a plant of that wonderful old camellia you see in many gardens – because it’s so good - `Hiryu’ – deep pink, handsome, hardy, and a reasonably long bloomer (below). The pretty single flowers begin in autumn and continue into winter. I believe she’d bought it at a school fete, and while she didn’t remember this, it holds significant sentimental value to me. I suggested it, and we found a large one with a flower, which she liked.
As always, it makes me think about my own garden. My 20-year old Camellia `Hiryu’ was long ago chomped by wallabies but it’s tempting to get another. But what about the entrance to the garden, where I’ve perennials and roses, and just a few winter roses (Helleborus)? Serious winter colour sounds good. (I pride myself on year-round flowers so this needs some thought.) This garden area sings in yellows and blues, and I’m not fond of the `yellow’ camellias, especially the early champagne-coloured ones. But many of the white camellias are lovely, and my mother grew one called `Cornish Snow’ which – for her, in great soil in cool Emerald – flowered for 5 months; a gem. (Yellow-flowering shrubs sound more appropriate here but, while I love Forsythias and the scent of witch hazels, I prefer evergreens here. And camellias have oomph. I hope this doesn’t sound tacky but I enjoyed the moment last spring when loads of the iris where flowering along the front path and my sister was impressed; very nice. Double that in winter, surely.)
Even one camellia here might lift the winter garden. (Cyclamen coum, snowdrops and Crocus chrysanthus are wonderful but tiny; perhaps only I see their brave winter flowers.) Or two camellias: a sasanqua, my preference, for the early months, and a Camellia japonica (being white, in the shade of the Camellia         sasanqua) for later blooms. (The huge flowers of C. reticulata are not for me.)
We are so lucky in southern Victoria to have mild winters full of blooms; our summers are hot but our winters are jam-packed full of flowers (particularly in August); such a great climate for gardens.

Jill Weatherhead  is horticulturist, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead  Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (

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